Photo from LexMachina's Flickr photostream.
Sometimes I can reverse-psychologize myself into liking things. The best way to work this trick is to play on my natural tendency to be a devil's advocate, to root for the underdog. Reading reviews makes me picture The Difference Engine as one such underdog. There are a few common complaints that are already making me raise eyebrows, and the theory is that, if I can point out how those expectations or confusions are unrealistic, I'll feel allied with the book before I even begin.
(Caveat: This might be highly unfair to the book, or myself, or the experience of reading in general. I'm still mulling over the moral implications.)
Often reviewers decry the glossing-over of the changes in technology that the entire plot springs from. This is where some history lessons are useful: Charles Babbage tried to design the first computer, a mechanical device that would perform advanced mathematical calculations. We're not talking "computers" here, no microchips or binary or circuit boards; this engine was operated by a hand crank. The original design failed, and government funding was withdrawn when the project became too expensive to support. An improved design, the Difference Engine No. 2, was used as reference material by rival inventors. A century and a half later, modern scientists were able to build a successful Difference Engine No. 2. Some "minor errors" were found in Babbage's schematics, but the machine was fully operational by the end.
So you see, I can't imagine this novel not glossing over the details of the technology. A world where Babbage's ideas worked is impossible. Impossible. It didn't work because he couldn't make it work and this is indicative of the state of his entire culture. In order to write about an alternative culture, truth needed to be discarded.
The point of a "historical reimagining" is that we're suspending our disbelief for a while and allowing ourselves to go along with an assumption. Sometimes we like to call these axioms: things that may or may not be true, but will lead to fun outcomes if we follow along with them. They're the basis of philosophy, of arguments, of fiction. I don't think I have to mention that Gibson and Sterling are writers, not scientists - their jobs are to predict and theorize about the way things affect daily life. I'm relatively mechanically inclined but I doubt I could summarize the difference engine's mathematical functions in layman's terms. And why should I have to?* Why should they have to spend more than a succinct paragraph or two describing how the machines work when the real story is in how people's lives change around them? Borges never had to explain how The Library or The Lottery really worked, because he was too busy telling us important, mind-blowing things about how society worked in those situations. And those stories are the best in the world.
*Of course, I'll probably try at some point, because why not?
Written by Allana on Monday, March 29, 2010